24 - Jan - 2017
from Gebhard Pichler

Quality without compromise

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Dr. Rudolf Knünz is the man behind the rebirth of Kästle.

In conversations about the Vorarlberg entrepreneur Rudolf Knünz, nine times out of ten it will be about his re-launch of KTM. He began breathing new life in the traditional company Kästle in 2007. What was once associated with the Toni Sailers, Pirmin Zubrbriggens, Anita Wachters and Kjetil André Aamodts of the skiing world, today successfully reaches passionate skiers, many of whom live in the US. This year, the company moved it's HQ back to the site of it's original workshop in Hohenems. We interviewed Rudolf Knünz in his Vienna office – and discovered a great deal about his love of the Arlberg in the process.

In one profile, a journalist once asked the question – are you a meticulous planner, a sentimental millionaire or a loveable crackpot? He left the response open. How would you describe yourself?

I would say I'm the meticulous planner who thinks long-term and sometimes makes a dream come true.

Was joining Kästle one such dream?

I've been involved in the ski industry since 1989, and I've lived through the difficult 1990s. Passion for a traditional Vorarlberg brand played a significant role here. But Kästle isn't one of my hobbies. I believe in the brand's success and I see the long-term economic perspective.

What's your optimism based on?

I watched very carefully when three young lads took over Kästle from Benetton and searched for an investor. We recently succeeded in winning back the former development and production head of Kästle in the form of Rainer Nachbaur, who also brought in his brand Differences. He alone puts us a cut above the competition.

But the start wasn't easy...

The timing couldn't have been worse. The entire world was still reeling from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, just as we were introduce a premium product to the market.

So why did you still push on with your strategy?

Cause we concentrated immediately on the American market, where Kästle was always optimally positioned. Skiing is an elite sport in the US, and everything's twice as expensive as in Europe. Hollywood stars and investment bankers are willing to spend money on Austrian quality – they don't like skis that have been “made in China”.

Isn't it tempting to develop something for the masses on the side?

You have to make a decision: premium or mass production. You can't do both at the same time.

How can the customer judge the quality of Kästle products?

It's difficult to prove the difference in performance in the sports shop. That's why we only sell via selected specialist outlets that can supply the best advice. The difference has to quite literally be experienced.

What's special about Kästle?

In the old days, you just had to be able to handle Kästle skis. Nowadays, your skiing standard will be one or two notches higher with a Kästle, because we possess the relevant know-how to make amazingly user-friendly skis, we use innovative materials and dispense with any frills. And quality without compromise also comes at a price for us, because the ski lasts longer, for example. That's why we purposely only change the design every two years, so that our customers can use up-to-date skis over several years.

You've mentioned the US several times. Do you like the country?

I'm very critical of my experience of the US, even though I've always done well there from a business point of view and I really enjoy skiing in the Rocky Mountains. But I often find there's too much short-term thinking. I'm an enthusiastic European.

Your professional focus has been in Vienna for 10 years. Do you still visit Vorarlberg regularly?

I'm a loyal customer of People's – the airline that links Vienna with Vorarlberg. Privately, I enjoy my house in Lech and there are many professional contacts. I'm often in Hohenems, because I need that connection with the employees and the product itself.

You're still just as passionate about skiing?

Yes you could say that. But I try and avoid the slopes. A ski tour gives me freedom and solitude, it clears the head.

Where would you put the Arlberg in the global ski resort chart?

I think the Arlberg is the best skiing region in the world. This combination of challenging slopes and the innumerable possibilities to ski off-piste or go on ski tours, it's matchless. I value the expansiveness – and of course the reliably good snow conditions.

What's your personal connection with Lech?

I was born on the Arlberg, that's my home. Lech gives me quality of life, and it's also where family life is centred, with my children and grandchildren.

What do you value most about the Arlberg?

I would describe the Arlberg as a total work of art. It's a destination for genuine winter sportspeople and has the charm of somewhere with a manageable size. The same people gather here every year, they know each other. You won't find that anymore in fashionable destinations such as Gstaad or St. Moritz.

Are there any insider tips, or particular recommendations?

A descent from the Valluga Nord is always the highlight of any skiing holiday!

Which season is the best on the Arlberg?

Well, because of my own personal preferences, I'll say winter. But summer also has it's attractions, hiking for example. And don't forget the Philosophicum or the Lech Classic Festival – cultural highlights I also personally support.

Kästle and Arlberg – is there a special relationship there?

There's a close relationship. Few people know that the first Kästle ski was sold 90 years ago under the brand name “Arlberg”. The first Kästle world champions came from Arlberg and today we're proud of Lorraine Huber, a top free rider and Kästle brand ambassador from Lech. Also, it's no coincidence that the Kästle Museum is located on the Rüfikopf... Kästle even organises the annual sales meeting in Lech, because the entire team as well as distributors from all over world simply feel at home here.

Kästle

  • Founded in 1924 by Anton Kästle. Today 85 per cent of the company is owned by Dr. Rudolf Knünz with Knünz GmbH; Alexander Lotschak, Chris Davenport and Wolfgang Kappl each own 5 per cent
  • Turnover 2014: 6 million Euros
  • Annual sales: 18,000 pairs of skis
  • Kästle skis cost between 600 and 1,200 Euros. “In the case of skis over 1,000 Euros, we have a global market share of 35 per cent”, estimates Rudolf Knünz.
  • Kästle achieves a third of its turnover in North America. The second most important market is Austria, followed by France and Switzerland. Promising markets are Russia and the Czech Republic
  • Bernd Knünz (42), a second cousin of Rudolf Knünz, has been CEO for one year.
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